Category Archives: Balak

The Lion’s Advancement (Balak)

The Lion’s Advancement (Balak)

Make progress one time and it makes you happy. Make progress day after day, week after week and it makes you a champion. -Greg Werner

The Torah portion of Balak is unique in the sense that it is an account of the history of the young nation of Israel from the perspective of an enemy. It tells the tale of King Balak of Moav, who is fearful of the encroaching Israelite nation. Balak hires the sorcerer Bilaam to curse the nation of Israel during their wandering in the desert, before their entry into the Promised Land.

While Bilaam was known to be a powerful wizard capable of casting effective and destructive curses, in the Torah reading of Balak we have the almost-comic scenario of God forcing Bilaam to utter blessings over Israel instead of his intended curses.

Bilaam’s blessings are amongst the most graphic ones in the Torah and include the following:

“Behold, a people that rises like a lioness,

And as a lion lifts himself up,

Will not rest until it has feasted on prey,

And drunk the blood of the slain.” -Number 23:24

The Berdichever learns from the above blessing the importance of gradual improvement. The blessing starts off describing the rise of the lioness, but then shifts to the rising of the even more powerful lion.

Similarly, he explains, in our performance of commandments, we need to take them one step at a time. We may initially perform the commandments for selfish reasons, for expectation of some reward. Only after we’ve become accustomed to performing the commandments, after we’ve learned, understood and internalized their importance, can we hope to perform the commandments at the higher, more idealized level of doing them without any expectation of reward.

Hence the oft-repeated Talmudic maxim that one should perform the Mitzvot “not for their own sake (lo lishmah)”; for by doing them we will eventually come to perform the Mitzvot, as they should be done, “for their own sake (lishmah).”

The continuation of the blessing suggests additional levels of performance. “Will not rest until it has feasted on prey,” hints that once a person performs the Mitzvot for their own sake, they will encourage and raise other people to also perform Mitzvot, people who have previously fallen “prey” to their evil inclinations. And “drunk the blood of the slain,” alludes to fallen divine “sparks” that are like the “slain” that are raised and revitalized by the fulsome performance of the commandments.

May we continue on our paths of spiritual development, continuously learning and methodically doing what is right, and growing step by step as spiritual beings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbanit Dr. Avigail Rock z”l. May God comfort her family amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Royal Frailty (Balak)

Royal Frailty (Balak)

Don’t forget your great guns, which are the most respectable arguments of the rights of kings. -Frederick the Great

The nation of Israel was nearing the end of their punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert. They were ready to enter the land that God had promised them. Just a couple of kingdoms stood in their way. Moses sends messengers to the first king in their path, Sichon, king of the Emorites. Moses asks for safe passage and offers to pay for anything the people of Israel would consume on the way. Sichon answers by marching his massive, overwhelming army towards the Israelite camp. However, a one-sided battle ensues with Israel completely annihilating the Emorite army and conquering the entirety of Sichon’s kingdom. The same exact scenario plays itself out with Og the giant, King of Bashan.

Rabbeinu Bechaya on Numbers Chapter 22 (Balak) explains that both Sichon and Og relied on their strength of arms and the size of their armies. They assumed that the smaller, less experienced Israelite army would be easy to destroy. What they didn’t take into account is that while the might of a mortal king is defined by the strength and size of his army, such military force is meaningless to God. God is not defined by any physical attribute. God is the cause of every physical attribute.

The massive armies of Sichon and Og basically evaporated in front of God’s wishes for Israel to win the battle. The Torah reports that Israel killed every single combatant without losing one person on their side. This unnatural victory had Balak, King of Moab, scared witless. He was depending on his bigger, more powerful neighbors to defend him from what he saw as the Israelite threat. He abruptly discovered that the monarchs he felt were so strong, turned out to be of no consequence when facing God’s plans. All those men, all those armies that defined the strength of those kings, proved to be ephemeral.

Balak understood that physical force would have no effect against the nation of Israel. He then went on to try non-military strategies with mixed results. He had learned that in a world where God intervenes, strength of arms does not a king make.

May we realize where our true strengths lie.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the World Cup players, with the exciting wins, upsets and perhaps some divine involvement as well.

Well-rounded Blessings

Well-rounded Blessings

The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. -Albert Einstein

Balak, King of Moab, fearful of the Israeli nation’s proximity to his border, hires the famed sorcerer Bilaam to curse the people of Israel. Bilaam had a reputation for successfully cursing whomever he wished to curse. However, in what turns out to be a highly comic series of events, every time Bilaam opens his mouth to try to curse, and contrary to his own will, God has some of the most beautiful blessings in the entire Torah come forth from his lips.

Balak takes Bilaam to three different locations, with the hope that perhaps the differing vantage points will provide Bilaam a better chance of overcoming the divine insistence on blessing Israel as opposed to letting Bilaam curse them.

Rabbi Hirsch in Numbers Chapters 23 and 24 explains the deeper significance of each of the locations from the point of view of Balak and the three characteristics he sought to attack within Israel:

The first location, the high places of Baal represents the supreme “force of nature” and material prosperity.

The second place, the Field of Seers represents insight, prudence and foresight; intellectual and spiritual powers.

However, after neither of those attacks succeeded, after Balak and Bilaam understood that there was no chink in the armor of Israel in those attributes, they sought one last angle. In Rabbi Hirsch’s words:

“A nation may be blessed with every conceivable material and spiritual gift and still hasten headlong into ruin. Providence may shower upon it all the treasures, all the physical and spiritual wealth that heaven affords, and yet that nation may bear within itself a worm devouring it from within so that all its prosperity will be turned into adversity, and it will ultimately become not only unworthy but also incapable of receiving and retaining God’s blessings. This worm is called immorality; it is the shameless surrender to dissolute sensualism.”

That is what is represented by the third and final location, the Peak of Peor. At that point in time, Bilaam was not able to find anything amiss in the morality of Israel and hence the source of one of the most beautiful phrases that he utters, referring to Israel’s moral purity, and which have been made a part of our daily liturgy: “How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel.”

Rabbi Hirsch adds that those people and nations that respect and promote the principles for which Israel stands, will themselves reap all the blessings of material abundance and a rich intellectual and spiritual life, based on a clear moral existence.

May we strive for and achieve those goals.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Budapest, a beautiful city, gifted with many blessings.

Beware Instant Rewards

Beware Instant Rewards 

 Those who give hoping to be rewarded with honor are not giving, they are bargaining. -Philo
rewards-just-ahead-sign

The concept of reward and punishment is a fundamental belief in Judaism. In multiple places in the Torah, God tells us directly, in no uncertain language, that we will be rewarded for our good deeds and we will be punished for our bad ones. We are encouraged to choose well, to choose the good, to choose life. We are recounted in detail the blessings we will receive for following God’s path, including health, abundance and peace.

Conversely, we are exhorted to avoid evil, to avoid sin, to avoid ignoring God’s instructions. Ignoring God and allowing ourselves to sin leads to death, deprivation and suffering. The Torah in two places gives specific, horrifying details as to the punishments that await us should we choose poorly.

The Sfat Emet on the reading of Balak in 5635 (1875) adds an interesting caveat regarding rewards. He explains that the evil person who does do good, but does so for the reward, will in fact receive his reward – sometimes immediately. But in fact the physical reward that he receives in this world is the extent of what he receives. His motivation is selfish, ignorant and short-sighted. He has his eye on the reward and nothing else. He doesn’t understand that we don’t follow commandments merely for the reward, but rather because it is the will of God.

When we approach the commandments with the correct motivation, it is a benefit to our soul and our eternal existence beyond this physical world. The physical reward in this world is a side-benefit, almost tangential to the reward in the spiritual plane.

May we perform commandments for the right reasons and enjoy their rewards in this world and the next.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

 To Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. A guide, a mentsch, a role-model.

Perilous Roads

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/balak-perilous-roads/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Balak

Perilous Roads

Life is a journey that must be traveled no matter how bad the roads and accommodations. -Oliver Goldsmith

dangerous road

 

Although ubiquitous and constant and despite the marvels of modern technology at our disposal, travel remains one of the most fatal human activities, with more people dying from transportation accidents then any other non-medical cause. The advent of smartphones has likely increased the dangers we all face.

The Baal Haturim on Numbers 22:22 states that all roads are to be considered a source of danger. It does not matter how accustomed to the road we are or how many times we’ve travelled it.

There is an ancient Jewish Law, that when one sets upon the road to go any distance outside ones city, they must say the Wayfarer’s Prayer. It is a short, simple, direct prayer, beseeching God to protect us from the dangers of the road and to insure we reach our destination safely. We are so concerned about the pitfalls of travel that there is another short blessing of thanks (Birkat Hagomel) which is required for sea and air journeys that must be stated in a Minyan (a quorum of ten men). This is the same blessing as for one who was freed from prison, traversed the desert or recuperated from a bedridden illness.

May we take all appropriate physical, mental and spiritual precautions as we travel from place to place.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To David Taragan, who would so expertly take me safely from place to place.

Beware the Curse

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/balak-beware-the-curse/

Netziv Numbers: Balak

Beware the Curse

“An orphan’s curse would drag to hell, a spirit from on high; but oh! more horrible than that, is a curse in a dead man’s eye!” -Samuel Taylor Coleridge

An enemy with a slightly greater understanding of God’s relationship to the Jewish people rises up against us. Balak the King of Moab, fears the Israelite approach to his kingdom. Though Israel merely wants to pass by peacefully and God has ordered Moses not to fight the Moabites, Balak nonetheless hires a powerful man to help with his struggle against Israel.

Balak understands that physical force cannot prevail against the Jewish nation. Therefore, he hires the sorcerer Bilaam, who is reputed to have the power to effectively curse whom he wants. What follows is an ironic, comical and embarrassing tale of Bilaam attempting to curse Israel and in three successive attempts, with God’s direct involvement – blessings come out of Bilaam’s mouth to the great chagrin of Balak.

The Netziv on Numbers 22:11 explains that the plan of this diabolical duo was faulty in its spiritual understanding. The Netziv states that curses only work where there is sin. At that moment in the desert when Bilaam set out to curse Israel, he could not see or find any sin. His attempts to curse would prove ineffective because there was no negative spiritual act for it to take a hold off.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali for whom we mourn deeply.

 

Chink in our Armor

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/balak-chink-in-our-armor/]

Ibn Ezra Numbers: Balak

Chink in our Armor

“We must watch over our modesty in the presence of those who cannot understand its grounds.” -Jean Rostand

The evil sorcerer, Bilaam, teams up with the powerful King of Moab, Balak, to destroy the people of Israel. Bilaam attempts time and again to blast magical curses against the Israelite nation. However, God intervenes, and Bilaam, instead of cursing Israel, is forced by God to bless Israel.

After three failed attempts, Bilaam is cast away by an enraged King Balak. Israel seemed impervious to any attack. According to Ibn Ezra on Numbers 23:21, Balak does not give up. God’s very blessings provide Balak with a clue as to Israel’s fatal weakness.

One of the blessings mentions that God found “no fault” in Israel. Balak then reasoned (correctly), that if God were to find fault in Israel, they would be vulnerable to curses and destruction. The Rabbis comment that the women of Israel, (and as a result also the men), were modest and faithful in their amorous activities, which pleased God. With this insider information King Balak organizes the seduction of the Israelite men and sends a squad of Moabite and Midianite women to the Israelite camp. Balak knew that if the Israelite men would fall to the prohibited charms of the idol-worshipping women, then God’s impenetrable protection of the Jewish people would stop.

In this sexual attack, Balak is wildly successful. The Israelite men indeed succumb to the temptation, and then without lifting a finger, Balak witnesses God’s own assault upon the people of Israel with a fatal plague that kills 24,000 Israelites in short order.

Not only does God no longer provide defense, but He Himself punishes us for not living and behaving as we are supposed to.

We have a potent armor in God’s protection. We should be careful not to lose it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the modest, understanding and forgiving people I dealt with this week. May God’s protection always be with you.